Practical Peace

Scripture:  Luke 12:49-56

In 2003 I started my journey into ministry when I was hired for a very part-time youth ministry position at Old Capitol UMC in Corydon, IN.  Within that first year, I preached for the first time on a youth Sunday.  Since then, I have preached somewhere close to 600 times.  In addition to that, I have implemented almost 500 youth group lessons.  I have led dozens and dozens of bible studies in that time as well, and despite all of that I have never once used this morning’s scripture.  I have had ample opportunity.  This morning’s scripture is part of the lectionary.  The lectionary is a three year cycle of scripture readings used by a variety of different denominations.  The last time this scripture came up in the lectionary was August 18th, 2019.  I was here at that point, and we could have looked at this scripture then, but instead I chose the passage from Hebrews 12 that is also part of the lectionary selections for this day.  The time before that was August 14th, 2016 where I also leaned into the Hebrews scripture at Edinburgh UMC.  Earlier this year in our youth group we focused on scripture just from the gospel of Luke, but we did not spend any time of this section.   While I sincerely believe that all scripture is divinely inspired, God breathed and can deeply inform our lives, I have to confess that by and large I have avoided this morning’s particular passage.

I also have to confess that one of the reasons for this passage is that it is one that I find challenging, not just professionally challenging to explain but personally challenging to grasp.  This has been a scripture I have wrestled with because it seems so out of character for Jesus.  There are a couple of things that stick out.  First, is verse 51 which records Jesus as saying, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but division.”  This does not feel right.  After all, one of the prophetic scriptures we often associate with Jesus is Isiah 9:6 which states, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  In the gospel of Luke in the birth of Jesus story, the angels visit the shepherds and after announcing the birth of Jesus, the savior of the world, the angels declare, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”  This scripture is challenging because when Jesus asks “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?” it kind of feels like the answer should be yes.

The other challenging part of this scripture is the tone that Jesus seems to have.   There are times where Jesus’ words have a little bit of an edge on them, but usually that is when he confronts the religious leaders.  In this specific scripture he insults the crowd by calling them all hypocrites.   This really seems to be opposite of the general attitude of Jesus that we often have which is best expressed in Matthew 9:36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.”

This morning’s scripture is a challenging one because it kind of feels like the gospel writer wrote down Jesus’ interactions from when he was having a bad day.   The words of Jesus in this morning’s scripture do not often fit well with the image of Jesus that we usually lift up as the compassionate and loving savior, which is why it is usually easier just to skip it for a much easier and comforting passage.  Yet this morning’s scripture is still divinely inspired, it still captures the words of our Lord, and it still can inform our faith and shape our actions today.  I think the key to understanding this scripture comes from tackling two paradoxical questions.  First, can Jesus be upset with the crowds while still having compassion on them and second Can Jesus be the prince of peace while also bringing division?

For the first question, I think just about any parent can tell you the answer is “yes.”   Parents often want what is best for their children, and in my life experience there are very few things more infuriating when a child resists doing what you know is best for them.   More than one parent has learned just how upset they can actually get when they tried to get a stubborn toddler to take medicine the child really needed to get better.  All parents have had times when their frustration level gets a little high, their voice a little sharp, and their exasperation on the edge.   Yet, the parent never stop caring and loving the child with every fiber of their being.  In the same way Jesus can have a deep compassion on the crowd, yet still get frustrated with their inability to see what is right in front of them.

Honestly, Jesus’ frustration is understandable.   Jesus uses the analogy of the weather to show how the average person is able to use clues around them to understand the coming weather.   Jesus was talking to a crowd in Galilee, which was influenced by the region around it.  Any storm systems formed out over the Mediterranean Sea and blew in from the west, so that is how they knew dark clouds in the west meant rain.  Likewise, to the south was a large dry, desert area so strong winds from the south meant hot air was coming in.  Yet these same people, who had been raised being taught the words of the prophets in the synagogues, who grew up with expectations of the coming Messiah, could not recognize the messiah right in front of them.    They could recognize if the day was going to be hot, but they could not see God’s own son for who he is. They were missing what was truly important even though he was literally staring them in the face.

I do not know if you have ever had the experience of trying really hard to pull a door that pushes open, or doing some other absent minded maneuver.  It can be embarrassing to miss what is right in front of us, and that is what Jesus was calling the crowd out on.   Yet if we are being honest we still do the same thing today.  We put our focus and energy on trying to prognosticate what might happen, instead of focusing on what God is doing in the here and now.  A good example of this is gas prices, which we all agree are too high and we probably have all complained about at least one to someone.  Honestly, most of us have probably complained, maybe loudly, more than once.  The reason for the outcry is, maybe understandable, but it is also controlled by factors and economic forces beyond what we as individuals can do a lot about.  Imagine if all of the words and energy we have used in getting all riled up about high gas prices were instead used to better build God’s kingdom?  What if we better focused our words to build up, encourage, and support others instead of complain?  If instead of wasting our energy being upset about something we cannot influence, what if we instead used that energy to show others how much God loves them through our actions? Often the most God honoring, Jesus following, Christian action for us to take can be right in front of us but we miss them.  We do not take advantage of the opportunity God has provided because our focus is being consumed by something far less important.  I think is what we pick up on Jesus getting frustrated about in this morning’s scripture, and perhaps we still generate a reason for frustration today.  Yet, that does not change the mercy and compassion our savior shows us.

I think the second question, can Jesus be the prince of peace but still bring division is the harder question.   At face value reading Jesus state that he did not come to bring peace but division might be one of the more troubling and shocking things that Jesus states.  However, it is really a practical statement.  Those who seek to follow Jesus will find themselves opposed by others.   We see this in the bible.   The book of Acts outlines how the early church was persecuted, first by Paul, and then Paul himself experienced persecution on his missionary journeys.  Epistles like 1 and 2 Peter also deal heavily with the topic of persecution.   Jesus himself was executed by the ruling government in a matter that was often reserved for those the Romans wanted to make a political example out of.   Jesus brought a message of God’s radical love and acceptance and with it he undeniably brought division.

Yet, at the same time Jesus also deserves the title prince of peace.  Because it is through Jesus death and resurrection that we can be fully reconciled with our creator and be at peace with God.  Through the forgiveness we are offered by Jesus we can be at peace with ourselves knowing that God’s grace is greater than our sin, transgressions, and shot fallings.   Through the example of living that Jesus gave us we can live lives marked by peace in a stormy world.   Those who follow Jesus have God’s favor, and God’s peace is upon on them.  Jesus is undeniably the prince of peace, but his good news paradoxically brings division.

I think that leaves us with a question for what does it mean to follow Jesus in our world today?   I think the best advice to this is found in the writings in Paul.  In the second chapter of 1 Timothy, Paul writes, “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Savior who wants all people to be saved.”  As Jesus himself stated, his message bring about division, yet as followers of Jesus we are not the ones who should bring about the division.   We should not be disrespectful, antagonistic, or judgmental, and then cry persecution when the people we were being rude to push back.  Instead we should seek to model our lives after Jesus, the prince of peace.  Following Jesus may cause friction or even division with others, but despite that we can still be a model of holy peace.  Seeking to live at peace with others, can make a profound difference.

The testimony of Nicole Cliffe points to this.   While attending Harvard University she committed herself to being an atheist.    In the 200-oughts she achieved a level of internet prominence as one of the primary writers for the Toast, a feminist blog that became very popular to share on social media in some circles.  Despite being an atheist her entire adult life, she found herself drawn to Christianity.  It was not because she came across a stirring argument or because someone proved the error of her ways.  What brought her to know Jesus was quiet experience of others, she kept finding herself drawn to reading books about people experiencing God in their everyday life such as Hearing God by Dallas Willard.   She wrote about her coming to faith in a 2016 article for Christianity Today.  She wrote about what draw her into faith, “I am more undone by love, or kindness, or friendship than I would have thought possible.”

When we seek to model a life after Jesus and seek to live at peace with everyone, then people will take notice.  Yes, some of those people may not accept it, there may not be division.  But we do not need to respond divisively.  When we meet opposition, we can choose peaceful resistance.  We do not fight, but rather choose to respond with love, kindness, and even friendship.  This will do far more in showing Jesus to others than condemning what we think is wrong or dividing ourselves off from the world around us.  Today, we live in a divisive culture, but we can set apart from that by choosing to respond to the division with peace.

This morning’s scripture is a complicated one.  At first glance it seems to be the opposite of what we normally associate with Jesus, yet in the end this scripture is incredibly practical.   If we are truly following Jesus and living by his example, then we will find opposition and division.   However, that does not mean we have to respond in kind.   We can respond with love, kindness, and peace.  This morning’s scripture also reminds us the practical necessity of keeping our focus on what is most important.  May we have eyes to see where God is leading us, and wherever that is, may we go and may be a peaceful presence that can cut through the resistance and division of this world so that others can know God’s great love.

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